Recently, few young American defencemen have competed better internationally than Seth Jones of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Will he shine again in September?
The 21-year-old will need to shine if Team North America is to have a shot at going deep in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey in Toronto with its U23 roster.
He was acquired by Columbus from the Nashville Predators in a high-profile swap for Ryan Johansen on 6 January. He fit in well with the Ohio-based Eastern Conference NHL franchise, which signed him to a six-year, $32.4-million deal on 29 June.
Jones earned a career-high 31 points in 81 games, and 20 of them came in the 41 games he played for Columbus. The lack of team success, however, was a downer. The Jackets have only made the playoffs twice since entering the league in 2000/01, and missed out again this season.
Originally drafted fourth overall by Nashville in 2013, Jones is an IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship veteran. He suited up for Team USA’s sixth-place finish in Belarus in 2014 and won a bronze medal last year in the Czech Republic. The U.S. is still looking for its first gold at a World Championship tournament since 1933, but this 193-cm, 95-kg stalwart could be part of ending that drought at some point in the not-too-distant future. The Americans have played for a medal at three out of the last four Worlds.
In a late-season interview with IIHF.com, Jones spoke highly of his 2014 and 2015 experiences overseas: “I had a great time both times. You make friendships and you meet new guys you’ve never played with.”
He’s quickly built a sparkling IIHF resume. He’s a two-time U18 World Championship winner (2011, 2012) as a product of the National Team Development Program in Michigan.
In Ufa, Russia in 2013, Jones was part of a dynamic World Junior blue line that also featured tournament all-stars Jacob Trouba (Winnipeg Jets) and Jake McCabe (Buffalo Sabres), marching to America’s third gold medal ever. That 2013 team could form the core of future U.S. Olympic squads – perhaps not in 2018, but in 2022 and beyond. Other alumni like John Gibson, Johnny Gaudreau, and Vince Trocheck are thriving at the NHL level today.
Jones made a big impression on Gaudreau, a 2015 Calder Trophy finalist with the Calgary Flames. “He’s a great player,” Gaudreau said. “Smart, skilled, great defensively. He’s a great guy off the ice too, which makes it even better. I love playing with him. It’s great to see how well he’s doing this year.”
With his skating, physicality, and puck-moving savvy, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the son of ex-NBA player Popeye Jones is barely old enough to drink in his home country.
He’s playing for the Jackets under the fiery John Tortorella, who will double as the U.S.’s World Cup of Hockey coach in Toronto (17 September-1 October). Despite his youth, he adapted readily to a heavier workload with Columbus (logging a season-high 29:44 versus Philadelphia on 22 March) than he got with the Predators.
“In my first year in Nashville, Roman Josi got hurt a few games into the season and I jumped right in there, playing big minutes with Shea Weber,” Jones recalled. “I definitely feel like I can play these kinds of minutes. It’s not too taxing.”
He’s made a smooth transition to life in the Ohio capital. While catching an Ohio State Buckeyes football game and exploring the dining and entertainment in the Arena District around Nationwide Arena are fun options away from the rink, his main focus is excellence on the ice.
“I’m very comfortable right now,” said Jones. “I’m adjusting every game and getting more acclimated with my teammates, finding out how they play, especially my partner, Ryan Murray. Communicating is the key.” Murray, who just won World Championship gold with Canada in Moscow, will join Jones on the Team North American blue line.
One of Jones’s old U18 and U20 foes has become a valued teammate with the Jackets. Rookie Finnish goalie Joonas Korpisalo, also 21, got a chance to prove his mettle this season with number-one man Sergei Bobrovski struggling with lower-body injuries. Tall and athletic, Korpisalo became a Liiga starter with Ilves Tampere last season (2.34 GAA, 91.9 save percentage). Jones likes his competitive nature.
“He’s been playing unbelievable for us,” Jones said.
It’s a diverse group in Columbus. From young North American power forwards like Brandon Saad and Boone Jenner to recent Swedish World Junior mainstays like Alexander Wennberg and William Karlsson, Jones has plenty of company in his own age as the Jackets build toward the future.
Asked about the key to improvement for Columbus, Jones said: “The most important thing is just giving 100 per cent work ethic every night. Win or lose, whatever the scoreboard looks like, it’s about coming to the rink determined and prepared to win hockey games.”